Thursday, March 28, 2013

Race Report: Through the Mist at Moby Dick

Story by Laura Clark - originally published in ATRA's Trail Times Newsletter - Volume 18, Number 63 - Spring 2013

Photo from runwmac.com

Since it was first published in 1851, Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick has come to symbolize everyman’s quest for something beyond day-to-day trivia, a reach outside the box toward a larger justification. And while it seems ridiculous to tagline such a quest onto a mere race, on February 23, 2013, the branding was entirely appropriate.

The Moby Dick Snowshoe race is based out of the Lanesboro Visitor’s Center on Mount Greylock, the largest mountain in Massachusetts. The sheer girth of this mountain is so vast that there are entrances and trailheads shooting off from various surrounding towns. It is said that while sitting in his house in
Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Herman Melville gazed upward at Greylock’s snow-covered profile and imagined the great white whale breaking the sea foam in the misty ocean swells. Hence, the name for this particular Western Mass Athletic Club/Dion Snowshoe Series 7.5-mile race.

Those of you who have snowshoed recognize that 7.5 miles is a long way to run up and down a mountain. A lot can happen. And as with any mountain race, there were many surprises along the way. Some of us were old hands; others were attempting their first snowshoe race. We won’t go into questioning why anyone would pick such a challenging event for a first: it is all part of the quest mentality. Others had the usual time/distance race goals. One had more a complex cumulative goal.

Those on the most telling quest weren’t even there. As we all know, the most significant aspect of any trail event is the weather. This is even more so over an expansive space like Greylock, which lumbers through multiple ecosystems. Last year, we braved below-zero blizzard conditions and furious snow squalls which kept even our faithful greeter, the white lab Aspen, anchored closely to the Visitor’s Center. This year was a balmy thirty degrees without a trace of the usual wind chill. So our main concern was not overdressing after enduring weeks of negative degrees. But once again, Lady Greylock foiled our expectations.

At the three-quarter-mile mark we turned off the snowmobile trail and Into the Woods. There we encountered foggy mist, a Greylock trademark. Those who figured going up meant getting colder despite the strenuous climb had properly guessed the clothes/energy ratio. Others, like Jess Dockendorff and her friend the Mystery Runner bib #375, pursuing their first snowshoe race, hit widely varying spokes on the pilot’s helm. Mystery Runner — dressed in shorts — remained firmly optimistic and in fact finished in the top third. Dockendorff, however, while dressed sensibly, neglected to carry any fuel, figuring she was fast enough to finish well beyond the depletion zone. She was not so fortunate in her lottery attempt. After summiting second woman overall, she gradually bonked on the supposedly fun downhill. When I encountered her, she was weaving back and forth, grabbing trees for support. Not a good sign. Luckily, I had some extra Clif Shot Bloks to share and I knew Joanne Lynch, who was just behind me, had water. I knew this because she had previously shared some with me. Yes, I know, I should have carried water, but figured I could always eat snow.

We all regrouped at the Visitor’s Center sopping wet and shivering—more so than on any of the minus-degree days. Go figure. Must have been something about the Lady’s misty aspect, or her insistence on elevating even ordinary requests to extraordinary undertakings. The beauty of her frost-whiskered trees did not come without a price. While Dockendorff was shivering on the verge of hypothermia, those treating her in their own wet clothing were not much better off. Dr. Maureen Roberts’s lips slowly turned blue and she had to hurriedly change before she became the next victim. It is a definite asset to have a doctor on call and Dr. Roberts has served us well during several races this season.

Despite this close call, the Lady also revealed a trickster sense of humor. Jeff Clark, on his quest to complete his 100th snowshoe race before winter vanished, embarked wearing a monkey on his back. This was not a spur-of-the moment goal or monkey, but one Clark and I revisited every night at the dinner table as we totaled past races, factored in snow probability and did all sorts of scary math equations. Originally, he had thought it would be special to celebrate with his half marathon at the Peak Snowshoe races in Pittsfield, Vermont, but in light of this winter’s erratic weather patterns, decided to steer determinately toward the great white whale. And he was not disappointed. At registration Sweep Voll presented him with a sweet pink-and-white sock monkey affixed on his back, guaranteeing him safe passage.

I swear Lady Greylock laughed, so hard in fact that she got into his mind. Jeff, who had started out early, envisioned +Tim VanOrden passing him as he did his best Brer Rabbit imitation falling into the brambles. The catch was that Jeff had no idea there was a briar patch on the course or that TiVo would be passing him at that exact second. But there was, and he did. Shocked to see his dream world become reality, Clark pitched forward into the underbrush, eager wires entwining themselves around his snowshoes and anchoring him to the spot. Served him right for not initially targeting Moby. This year Edward Alibozek, a history buff who likes to design trails with tales, changed the route slightly to circle Rounds Rock and come close to the remains of a 1948 plane wreck and the monument to the pilot who lost his life. The aviator was John Newcomb, a World War II Army Air Corps radioman who crashed his twin-engine Cessna while on a mail run to Albany, NY.

Now here is the backstory. Recently, when one of our Saratoga Stryders members, Lisa Ippolito, was sorting through her deceased mother’s belongings on the day before her funeral, she happened upon a packet of love letters and newspaper articles. They were from John Newcomb, her mother’s fiancĂ©. Completing the love story, her mother was to be buried the following day on Newcomb’s birthday. Immediately after the race, we texted  ppolito to tell her we had located her mother’s fiancĂ©’s memorial and now knew the exact route to get there! Apparently, Lisa and her sister had no idea of her mother’s romance before she became Mrs. Ippolito. I would like to think that even when she realized she was dying of cancer she preferred to keep this part of her life private, leaving a legacy for Ippolito and her sister Tina to explore further. Ippolito and her sister will make their own Moby Dick quest this spring, confronting an astute Lady who knows how to keep a secret and cherish the past.

Results, video and photos from the Moby Dick Snowshoe Race can be found on the Western Mass Athletic Club website: http://www.runwmac.com/snowshoes/Moby%20Dick.htm